The Outrage Industrial Complex

By Marc Ambinder

A Washington-based journalist and analyst writes:


I think this OUTRAGE report is beneath you. It has, as you no doubt know, a flattening affect, equating all "outrages" or the week, large and small and serves to trivialize ones that actually matter. Now "what actually matters," is a subjective call and I suspect you and I have different politics. That's fine. But like the cliche about "partisan bickering", the OUTRAGE report falls into that very old, tired beltway trap of viewing all politics as fundamentally theatrical and substance-less.  That's something you do a very good job of avoiding in your other writing.

That's part of the point. Everyone uses the same language and affect to express outrage -- often over what someone said -- regardless of the harm of said outrage. I have found that, even in cases where someone says something offensive, expressions of outrage are almost always derivative of a desire to get publicity, or to make someone feel good, etc. We're all adults. Let's save our outrage for acts against real people that harm them, rather than just hurt their feelings. (Torturing people = outrageous.  A cartoon of a chimp in the New York Post? Offensive, yes, but orders of magnitude less harmful.)

In undergraduate political physics, practitioners are taught that Pi = (Ci + O)L -- that the perceived importance of a thing is equal to cosmic importance plus the outrage that's expressed over it multiplied by the intrinsic loudness of the expressed outrage. This works because most people engage in politics emotionally before they apply standards of reason and logic. And that's totally fine -- doing politics is inherently about the manipulation of symbols and emotions. But outrage, as has been noticed elsewhere, is a very specific emotion, and it's become the default emotion.

There are people in Washington who have the job of manufacturing outrage; who get paid to take offense, or to find ways to take offense, and to broadcast their outrage to others. The more outrage they generate, the more attention they get. I think it was Michael Kinsley who said that these folks go from zero to outrage in 60 seconds.  These outrage factories, be they media watchdogs, bloggers, cable show hosts, TV bookers, lobbyists, communication consultancies -- all operate as if outrage were the only valence level they can occupy. Often, the outrage is accompanied by argument. Just as often, it is used to replace argument.

The Outrage-Industrial Complex is flotsam and jetsam from the boiling hot ball of fire that was partisan politics over the past 25 years; it was constructed to magnify the high-energy partisan shots back inward, so as to fuel the fireball, much like -- and you'll forgive the physics metaphor again -- beryllium and other metals reflect neutrons back at the pit of the weapon, thus increasing its potential yield.

The OIC is incapable of distinguishing between what hurts and what harms; they're not capable of displaying anger (which may overlap with outrage, but is often more genuine), between bemusement and annoyance, or even shame

What has the flattening effect, then? Is it my fairly gentle satire of what's been "outrageous" to the political community this week? Or is it the willingness of the political community to devalue outrage itself by sanctioning its overuse?

This article available online at: